When we think of grief, we often think in terms of how it will affect us, our family members, or our closest friends. But grief hits everyone, and it undoubtedly spills over into our professional lives as well. If you hold any job for a significant period of time, you will likely see an employee or coworker struggling with grief. If this happens, consider applying the following tips to best express your support.
Be Patient: If you are an employer, this simple instruction is particularly important. On average, Americans receive four days of paid leave in the aftermath of a loss. After this short time, employees are expected to return to work and fully engage in their assigned tasks, which often seem overwhelming when combined with the stress that is occurring in their personal life. In a study on grief’s effects on job performance, 75% of participants claimed that they experienced concentration difficulties that extended beyond the period of paid leave.
If you are managing a grieving employee, you may want to consider providing more paid leave. If this isn’t an option, and the employee must return to work after a short period, it is important that he or she feels safe and comfortable in the work environment. Be patient with the employee, communicate your sympathy, and consider temporarily reassigning any tasks or projects that require a high level of creativity or energy. Grief tends to cloud thoughts and reduce energy levels. However, some people throw themselves into their work after losing a loved one. Everyone handles grief in different ways, so be prepared to be flexible with a grieving coworker.
Say Something: One of the most discouraging things about the grief journey is that people tend to shy away from the mourner. This is problematic, because more often than not, those who have lost loved ones need some sort of expression from others to let them know that they are supported. If you don’t know what to say to a coworker or employee, be honest about your uncertainty, and consider communicating something like this: “I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry for your loss. If you need anything or if I can help with…(fill in the blank).” Often, people give a general statement offering help in any way. Be specific. If you know you can help with a project or take some stress off of your coworker, even if it’s only for a while, be sure to offer. Of course, you can always help by providing a meal, donating to a special cause on their behalf, or leaving a card or a small, simple sympathy gift on their desk. Any small gesture could make a world of difference in allowing your colleague to feel understood and supported at work.
Keep the focus on the mourner: While you certainly shouldn’t ignore a grieving coworker, and should communicate your sympathy as clearly as possible, it is also important that you don’t use this conversation as an opportunity to seize the spotlight. When talking with a coworker, the emphasis of the conversation should always be on the needs of the mourner. While well-intended, stories of your lost loved ones are generally not appropriate at this time. To the mourner, these attempts at grief identification indicate that you are assuming that you know how they feel, which can be construed as presumptuous and offensive.
For many people, the challenge is to avoid giving too much advice or easy answers. There’s nothing wrong with offering support or a word of encouragement, but be careful to avoid telling the person what to do or how to feel. Platitudes or cliches tend to minimize the other person’s pain and send the wrong message. If you are tempted to “make it better” by telling them that their loved one is in a better place or they are at least no longer in pain, don’t. Let them tell you how they feel, and simply express your sympathy and support: I’m so sorry for your loss. If you need anything please let me know. No advice that you give is going to fix a person’s situation, and when you realize this simple fact, you are better able to offer genuine help.
Check in occasionally: For the first few weeks after loss, mourners typically receive an abundance of support and help. As time goes by, the shock and numbness wear off, but that’s when the reality sets in. Their loved one is not coming back. If the loss is an immediate family member, be sure to check in every few months and genuinely ask “How are you holding up?” Don’t assume they are “strong” because they are doing well at work. Allow them to tell you how they are coping and mention their loved one by name. The sweetest sound to a mourner’s ears is usually the name of their loved one being remembered by others.
Regardless of the specifics of the situation, losing a loved one is hard. But the pain of loss can be compounded by the stressful demands of the workplace. Those who are obligated to return to work soon after a loss are particularly vulnerable to stress and work frustration. As a coworker or an employer, it’s important to take steps to make a grieving worker feel as comfortable and supported as possible.